“Why Do Most Vegetarians Go Back to Eating Meat?”

The Psychology of Wasted Potential

It has been estimated that for every vegetarian, there are three failed vegetarians. Why? A recent blog on the website of Psychology Today attempts to answer that question with an article entitled, “Why Do Most Vegetarians Go Back to Eating Meat?” After interviewing 77 failed vegetarians, the psychologist who wrote the blog explains that the top four reasons for falling off the wagon are:

  1. Poor health.
  2. Vegetarianism is a hassle.
  3. Craving for animal products.
  4. The social cost of being vegetarian is too high.

It would be easy to write off the blog (which masquerades as a peer reviewed article in a scientific journal) because there are so many things wrong with it. First of all, from a scientific standpoint, the process leaves a lot to be desired. Only 77 people responded, hardly a representative sample. The respondents selected themselves, suggesting a strong bias to justify violating their own ethical norms. No effort was made to test the veracity of the claims. And in fact, no real qualitative analysis was made at all. For example, the author reported that respondents “complained that it was difficult to find high quality organic vegetables in their supermarkets at a reasonable price” and that others “began to resent the time it took to prepare meatless dishes.” But these things are distractions.

For one, a vegan diet means not eating animals. It does not mean paying more for “high quality organic vegetables.” In terms of being vegan, conventionally grown broccoli is the same as its organic counterpart. Secondly, there is no difference in cooking time between pasta with meatballs and pasta with vegan “meat” balls. In other words, a lot of the data was non-responsive to the question indicated. The “input” data was flawed and should have been discarded or probed further to be relevant to the question actually being studied. Third, his example of “Staci Giani,” a former vegetarian who now eats a “half pint of raw beef liver” for breakfast is highly suspect. The only results for a “Staci Giani” in Google is the author’s articles. It is curious that the author goes out of his way to tell us that Staci is described as living in a “commune” which would make it impossible to track her. No phone records. Off the grid. But even assuming Staci Giani is a real person, the author describes her as “forty-one but looks ten years younger;” that she “radiates strength,” and when talking about eating raw beef liver, she “seems to glow.” He concludes: “This woman could kick my ass.” In other words, all pretensions to scientific objectivity are discarded. The author is working towards a predetermined conclusion, and his “Staci Giani” is the anchor to that: an extreme carnivore who radiates health.

And finally, and perhaps most importantly, the author, who is a psychologist writing a blog in Psychology Today, employs no psychology to really understand why the respondents quit a diet they embraced for ethical reasons. In other words, the author took the survey responses at face value, without attempting to read any motivation into why the respondents may have chosen to give the particular answers that they did. This is particularly troubling in regards to the first—and most common response people gave – that they had to start eating animals again because of “poor health.” Any article attempting to uncover the psychology behind failed vegetarianism should take into account what might be the psychological elements motivating particular responses, including guilt, especially given that over half – 57% – of the respondents in this survey cited ethical concerns as the motivating factor for their vegetarianism, and others cited their concern about the environment. How do such individuals overcome the guilt of knowing they are engaging in admitted unethical behavior which is detrimental to both animals and the environment, without also admitting to being unethical themselves? They rationalize.

Wikipedia defines a rationalization as follows:

In psychology and logic, rationalization (or making excuses) is a defense mechanism in which perceived controversial behaviors or feelings are explained in a rational or logical manner to avoid the true explanation… This process ranges from fully conscious (e.g. to present an external defense against ridicule from others) to mostly subconscious (e.g. to create a block against internal feelings of guilt).

Before the information presented in the article is used to substantiate anything, it would be necessary to fully analyze what might be motivating the answers that were given. And certainly before we accept such an argument on face-value, and in so doing, accept assertions that malign vegetarianism and veganism and are so at odds with the factual data about the healthful aspects of veganism and the detrimental aspects of eating animals, we have an ethical as well as rational duty to do so. Read any book on the negative effects of an animal-based diet and you’ll see it is akin to admitting that you had to start smoking again for your health.

We live in a country in which there is a massive obesity epidemic and attendant health effects due to a cholesterol-laden, fat-filled animal-based diet. And yet vegans—the people who reject such a diet—are expected to defend their food choices and unfortunately, we often comply with the suspicion that the burden is on us to prove that our diet is healthy by being absurdly obsessed with it. Collectively, we cannot stop talking about Vitamin B12, Omega-3 fatty acids, or the need to become an expert on nutrition even though vegans have reduced risk of heart disease, cancer, and other lifestyle disease states.

It would be a mistake to believe that people are not thriving on a vegan diet, that we need to spend more time on teaching them about nutrition, that common knowledge and common sense aren’t enough, or that we have to rely on registered dietitians if we are to stop eating animals and animal products. After two pregnancies, eight years of breastfeeding, raising two vegan children, over 40 years of combined veganism, and surrounding ourselves with vegan friends who have raised vegan kids, and not one of us ever having consulted a dietitian or becoming ill as a result of our diets, we say with confidence: “It ain’t rocket science.” You do not need the guidance of “expert” vegan authors to be vegan, even to be a healthy vegan. Veganism is better for you than not being vegan. Period. (If you are concerned, take a daily multivitamin.)

But the fact that “My doctor told me to eat meat because I got sick,” is a common retort, however, actually bodes well for veganism. It shows how many people have made the calculation that being vegan is a good idea. And it shows that people want to identify themselves with veganism. But having failed at it, even while they identify themselves as “ethical” or “environmentalists,” they need to offer a “defensible” reason or “political cover” for why they failed. To use the parlance of psychology, the respondents are rationalizing. In other words, they are lying.

But despite the lack of scientific rigor in the blog, the fact that the characters appear over-the-top and fictionalized, and the fact that the author has taken quite a few liberties with objectivity, doesn’t mean there aren’t important lessons here for our vegan advocacy. For long-time vegetarians and vegans, there is nothing surprising in this “data.” No doubt, most of us could have written this list without interviewing a single person, simply from the cumulative experiences we have had in our own lives with people giving us these very excuses. And in fact, the last three of the four excuses—social costs, inconvenience, and cravings—are the very reasons we wrote All American Vegan. They substantiate many of the arguments we make in the book about the misperceptions and roadblocks we need to overcome in order to increase the number of vegans in our country. Being vegan is not complicated, but in today’s society, it can be difficult for those who are just starting out. At the least, it is not as easy as not being vegan. So the “study,” (to be very generous in terminology) while flawed, holds some important insights.

To begin with, failed vegetarians often feel guilty about eating animals, and feel they need to rationalize their meat eating; to justify untoward behavior that they themselves have determined is not ethical. They may have given up on it, but the guilt that motivated them to try it in the first place is alive and well. There is potential there, potential that is being squandered because veganism and vegetarianism in 21st century America is harder than it should be as evidenced by the other three reasons the blog cites. What can we, as activists, do to change that? To make being vegan as easy and convenient as not being vegan?

Right now, being vegan requires commitment. Being vegan requires planning ahead. It shouldn’t. If we want more people to do the right thing, we should make it easy and convenient for people to do so. We need to encourage vegan alternatives for every craving that a new or aspiring vegan might have. We need to see to it that vegan options are more widespread. And we need to not only talk to other vegans and aspiring vegans, but to those who feel threatened by the vegan in their life because of the fears that often accompany change and therefore make being vegan uncomfortable or socially awkward for some.  In other words, we need to make veganism more mainstream. And one way we can do this is to simplify and demystify veganism by freeing it from the “albatross” of the locally-grown, slow-food, New Age, health and spiritual aspects with which it is saddled and which do not appeal to a culture that views those things as elitist or with suspicion.

Wheat is no less vegan than quinoa, yet we are obsessed with forcing unfamiliar grains down the gullets of people who were raised on a diet of Big Macs and Burrito Supremes. A vegan candy bar is as vegan as a shot of wheat-grass and spirulina. Neither contains animal products. Yet we push the wheat-grass and downplay the chocolate. Gluten-free has nothing to do with being vegan, but it is in every discussion about veganism. White flour is as vegan as whole wheat flour and yet we rail against it.

Sometimes the advocacy we think promotes a vegan diet actually undermines it. Those who advocate for veganism often insist on organic, insist on exotic, insist on healthy, and shun convenience foods, exactly the opposite of how most Americans grew up eating, exactly the opposite of how most Americans currently eat, and exactly the opposite of how most Americans want to continue eating, creating more obstacles to being vegan that just eschewing animal products.  We make veganism harder than it needs to be. And we do not advocate for more vegan processed foods to replace animal-based foods because we are obsessed with health, when most people are vegan for ethical reasons or would make the switch for that reason alone, if veganism was more convenient and a whole lot tastier. In short, we make veganism a hassle, we feed their cravings for animal products, and we turn them into unpleasable and inconvenient social outcasts. In other other words, we make veganism a chore.

As we wrote in our first blog, Veganism for the Rest of Us, we need to meet people where they already are. They love animals and are willing to embrace actions that spare them harm. They don’t have three hours every night to cook. And they certainly do not believe that adopting cauliflower as a staple is a sustainable lifestyle change. Our goal should be to make it easy for them to adopt a more humane diet. If there is one thing that is clear from the way most American eat: taste trumps health. If we can’t get Americans to eat more vegetables with their meat, how the hell are we going to get them to eat vegetables instead of meat? We aren’t. We should not want to replace their hamburgers with mung beans over a bed of alfalfa sprouts. We should strive to replace their hamburgers with hamburgers. To do that, we need to promote vegan convenience foods. And yes, that means packaged, processed, salted foods. It means veggie pepperoni, hot dogs, frozen burritos, ice cream, candy bars, sodas, and pizza that looks familiar, sounds familiar, is convenient, and for the most part will not require much preparation. Most importantly, they need to be delicious to a palate raised on salt and fat. We believe that approaching dietary change this way will inspire people to become vegan and to sustain being vegan. Make it easy—and delicious—for people to do the right thing, and they will.

As a movement, we need to stop creating unreasonable views about veganism that cause three of us to fail every time one of us succeeds. Because most of us who are succeeding aren’t soaking beans, growing sprouts, sipping tea in our Zen gardens, or cooking from scratch every night with “high quality organic vegetables.” We are popping the vegan “chicken” patty in the toaster, slathering vegan mayonnaise on a soft, white, processed bun and serving it with a side of once frozen French fries sprinkled with lots of salt. If there is a salad there, it’s covered in a thick, creamy dressing. And guess what? We are as vegan as the Birkenstock-wearing, poetry-writing, chakra-reading, New Age vegan who would eat any grains the ancients used to eat even if they didn’t dominate vegan cookbooks.

While it is scientifically flawed and largely failed to reach the proper conclusion as to why vegetarians and vegans revert to meat eating, the blog posted on the website of Psychology Today does shed light on where our efforts to promote veganism should be focused: on making a vegan diet easier. And if it was, no doubt most of those who gave up on it – who once made the brilliant and compassionate decision to stop eating animals – would still be vegetarian or vegan today. Give the people what they want, only in delicious vegan versions. For most of us, that isn’t “high quality organic vegetables.” It is not quinoa or a gluten-free spelt-based casserole. It isn’t any exotic grain with names we can’t pronounce from long-extinct civilizations we’ve never heard of. It is nothing more than a hamburger, fries, and a soda. We drive in, we pull out, we gobble it down, and we go on with our day, telling ourselves that on January 1 we’ll do better, knowing deep down we don’t really want to and don’t really mean it.

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Vegan AmericaMaking America Vegan Friendly

A campaign of allamericanvegan.com, Vegan America is dedicated to inspiring and assisting Americans to go vegan, and to transforming the American landscape to make it more vegan friendly. By providing fun, helpful information to aspiring vegans, and by working to expand vegan options at restaurants, grocery stores, and everywhere that Americans work, live and play, we hope to make vegan food familiar, widespread and appealing so that animal-based foods will be replaced entirely.

  1. Do you think being vegan is a hassle? See our guides to dining out as a vegan, increasing vegan options at restaurants , and increasing vegan options at supermarkets and grocery stores
  2. Do you have a craving for animal products? See our handy guide to vegan substitution
  3. Do you believe the social costs of being vegan are too high? See our handbook on the care & feeding of vegans for non-vegans

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